This timely book, from the new wunderkind of English History Ben Wilson (Born in 1980, damn his eyes) follows his previous book on William Hone. It deals this time with a broader subject, that is the rise of Victorian morality and the collapse of the rude and vivacious 'Merrie Englande' of riots, liberty and general raucousness. It is a thoroughly good read.
The Britain of 1789 was on the cusp of becoming the great global empire, but at that time it was fearful. Fearful of revolution, fearful of economic collapse, most of all fearful of the French.
What else it was however was a land where liberty was the prime, if not only serious consideration. In Britain we did not need police, we had character. If this meant that we were prey to all sorts of crime and disturbance so be it. No Englishmen could possibly consent to being policed, it was beneath his dignity and his honour.
Wilson charts this world with a quick eye and subtle learning. Anecdote follows analysis in a jumble of threads and themes that are kept together by the progress of those who would improve the character of the English. Wilberforce, Colquhoun, Mary Evans, the monstrous Society for the Suppression of Vice, itself up to its neck in blackguardy, imposture and so on.
As the freedoms withered under the onslaught of propriety there were moments when the old country fought back. The debate over the 1831 Beer Bill being a case in point. In 1830 duty had been removed from Beer. Wilson puts it thus, "In political othodoxy, beer and British liberty went hand in hand... Beer was a wholesome drink, the perfect beverage for the busy labourer. People, especially British people, needed some 'exhilarating beverage'; it was their right".
William Cobbett was fearful that putting taxes back on beer might drive the true born Englishman into something worse,
"It is notorious that tea has no useful strength in it; that it contains nothing nutritious; that it, besides being good for nothing, has badness in it, because it is well known to produce want of sleep in many cases, and in all cases to shake and weaken the nerves. It is, in fact a weaker kind of laudanum". If, he went on, a working man had home brewed beer at breakfast he would be hearty and blooming with health, but as it is "he makes his miserable progress towards death" - a demise hastened by the ravages of tea.
Sound man that Cobbett.
The debate went into the House of Commons "there are many causes that have reduced the present state of the poor, among them the taking away of common rights, enclosing lands, stopping footpaths, and a variety of measures interfering with them in every way, so that they have no other resource for amusement, and dissipating idle thoughts, than tippling".
Beer remained untaxed, at least for the while.
Maybe a key point about the changes being wrought in the Britain of those days is exemplified by the great essayist William Hazlitt,
"Modern manners may be compared to a modern stage coach; our limbs may be a little cramped with the confinement, and we may grow drowsy, but we arrive safely, without any very amusing or very sad amusements at our journey's end".
Live just got that little duller, if safer. Of course their are many striking parallels with today and our government that wishes us all to be better people, not to smoke, not to drink, not to eat fatty foods, not to go out after nightfall, be photographed, tagged licensed chipped and so on. However as Wilson concludes, "There is something in the human spirit that will rebel against what is perceived to be artificial and constraining", let's pray that he is right.
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